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Sand and souls

20 February 2015

THE desert and what we tend to think of as spirituality are not necessarily natural companions. The desert has in modern times, indeed, been conspicuous as a battlefield, where solitude and silence can scarcely have priority - a place as far as it is possible to get from the atmosphere of an Anglican retreat house during Lent. Anyone who thinks of the North African campaign and El Alamein, the Sinai desert in 1967, Operation Desert Storm in 1991, or the Shiite Muslim soldiers recently photographed training in the Iraqi desert to do battle with Islamic State, is imagining a place that is harsh and inhospitable, even if not, at a given moment, bloodstained.

T. E. Lawrence's description of the desert as driving men back upon God but also hardening their hearts was coloured by the Orientalism of his day. But the daily flow of grim reports and images from the Middle East makes it chillingly resonant: "Those who went into the desert long enough to forget its open spaces and its emptiness were inevitably thrust upon God as the only refuge and rhythm of being. . . His [the desert dweller's] sterile experience perverts his human kindness to the image of the waste in which he hides." Here is a place where the ultimate questions of life are to the fore, and yet the heart may become a stone.

The witness of the Christian faith is that Jesus enters the desert, but his heart does not become a stone. It is the place where he prepares for a destiny that is unique in its potential to correct the violence in human nature. The struggle in which he engages there - and for him the desert is a solitary place, where his trial comes without the distraction of human company - is the necessary prelude to his silence in Pilate's crowded judgment hall, where Isaiah's prophecy is fulfilled: "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."

At some point, every follower of Jesus has to find something of that silence in order to find reality on the road towards Easter and the resurrection. Perhaps it will be on a Lenten retreat; or perhaps it will be snatched at the last minute before going to confession, or found at last on Maundy Thursday evening or Good Friday afternoon. Most people cannot be silent, or solitary, for long; and it is a full-time vocation for very few. But it is more than a necessary, if brief, escape from distractions so that grace can begin its work. It is also the most that many of us will be able to do for the many men, women, and children who have been, or will be, or fear being, silenced brutally for their faith. It does not matter which faith. If, kneeling silently during Lent this year, we try to bring them to mind before the Christ of the judgment hall, with his heart of flesh, he will not want us to distinguish as he beholds his lambs.

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